The young director Michael Longhurst is best-known for his work on new plays, such as Nick Payne's award-winning Constellations and the Manchester Royal Exchange's recent Cannibals. "This is almost a new experience for me", he admits about his latest production The History Boys at Sheffield Theatres, "not having the writer in the rehearsal room". But although it's not new writing, Longhurst's production is certainly set to offer a new take on a modern classic.

Set in the 1980s, The History Boys follows a group of Sheffield sixth formers preparing for the Oxbridge entrance exam under the tutelage of three contrasting teachers. The most charismatic of these, Hector (a part made famous at the National and on screen by the late Richard Griffiths), combines a passion for passing on knowledge with a penchant for fondling adolescent boys. In the current climate, this ambiguous role seems harder to swallow than it was at the play's debut a decade ago. Longhurst does not intend to shirk this issue, insisting that the play should be "contentious and controversial".

"At the root of the play is the question of what happens when people we love do something abhorrent", he explains. "We have to love Hector for the play to work, but he is a tragic figure". Still at an early stage of rehearsals, he confesses that it is not yet clear how sympathetic a portrayal their production will come to give, and that the company's opinions are currently divided on this topic, making for much animated debate.

Longhurst has never worked on a stage the size of the Crucible's before and, currently banished by the World Snooker Championships, has even yet to rehearse on it. But he doesn't seem daunted by the prospect; he stood on the stage once and has "spent a long time staring at the model box". "It'll be very vibrant, punky", he reveals about the production's "playful" design, which will feature a glass-walled office from which headmaster (Nicholas Day) observes the rest of his school.

Like most who have once stepped on the Crucible stage, Longhurst's enthusiasm for it is palpable. Likewise, he professes to share the excitement of Sheffield Theatres' Artistic Director Daniel Evans to give The History Boys "a homecoming in the city where it is set".

The History Boys runs at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield from 16 May – 8 June. For further information visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk